“Are we or we not conscious that many of us, under the narcotic influence of custom and usage, too often violate the feelings of our common human nature and our sense of right and wrong, stunt the growth of our higher life, and embitter the existence of many of those who depend on us, our wives and children, our brothers and sons, our relatives and friends?”
The man asking that question was Mahadev Govind Ranade, a lavishly moustachioed Brahmin from Pune. A devout Hindu, retired judge and enthusiastic social reformer, Ranade was speaking at a college in Lahore named after Saraswati, the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic College (precursor to hundreds of DAV educational institutions that combine Anglo-Saxon techniques and Vedic values).
As he campaigned long and passionately for ‘a gentle revolution’ to end infant marriage and boost the abysmal status of women, Ranade said he was no authority to suggest remedies. “Those will suggest themselves to you,” he said. For too long, he argued, was the mind of Hindu society trapped in a house whose weaknesses could not be whitewashed or plastered over any longer.
Always resplendent in his pagote, or turban, Ranade is not as well remembered as the men he inspired: Gopal Krishna Gokhale, once Congress president and campaigner against untouchability, and a certain Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Yet, 120 years after Ranade — and the men and women who preceded and followed him — Indian society, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other “brothers prepared to welcome a higher dispensation”, as Ranade called them, finds it unable to shake off the narcotic of custom and caste.
It is the single greatest reason that the India of 2013, despite a great economic leap into the modern age, remains in a sedative haze many centuries old.
It is why a woman and man who marry without community permission are hunted down and their heads cleaved from their bodies in Haryana, a state whose people are among India’s richest. It is why upper-caste mobs routinely burn entire neighbourhoods of Dalit houses in Tamil Nadu, one of India’s most industrialised states.
It is why unrelated young men and women who travel in a car are often stopped and hectored by Hindu and Muslim vigilante groups in coastal Karnataka, home to some of India’s most educated people. It is why conservative Muslim groups stridently demand that underage women be allowed to marry in prosperous Kerala, India’s beacon for literacy and healthcare. It is why routine crimes are avenged with ethnic cleansing, as evidenced by the refugee camps housing thousands of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
It is why most candidates for national elections in 2014 will be decided — with some honourable exceptions within fringe parties — not on the basis of their character and ability but by the accident of birth in families of hereditary power or as Vanniyars, Yadavs, Kunbis, Lingayats, Meteis, Ansaris and thousands of other regressive ways in which Indians continue to identify and divide themselves.
Last week in Delhi, I watched as members of a singles club, urban professionals who constitute the new, globalised elite, spent an evening getting to know each other. Over wine and good food, they talked and laughed. These young men and women did not want to be identified by their caste or religion, and they did not want to advertise in the countless pages of matrimonials, those classified advertisements of caste, religion, caste, sub-caste and sub sub-caste that govern millions of marital destinies in modern India.
At this mellow evening, I was introduced to the first couple of this club to be engaged — a month after they started dating. A good symbol of the brave, caste-free India, I thought, even if they appeared to be rushing it. As it emerged, the courtship hastened to fruition primarily because they were from the same caste and sub-caste (To be fair, though, another recent marriage was between a part-Muslim, part-Parsi girl to a Hindu boy, but such alliances are exceedingly rare).
India changes, but it changes much too slowly. Its cultural sloth holds back economic and social progress and will do so until Indians, particularly Hindus — primarily because they constitute the vast majority of Indians and their habits and thoughts greatly influence the rest — realise that change will not be delivered as much by a Modi or a Gandhi but by themselves and their attitudes. Division can never deliver that change.
Ranade the gentle reformer strongly believed that India desperately needed concord. He was no liberal, as the term is used today. An admirer of Maratha power, he described Hindus as the “chosen race”. He said: “It was not for nothing that God has showered his choicest blessings on this ancient land of Aryavarta.”
Yet, unlike the growing, modern Hindu view that the Muslim past is something to be ashamed of, Ranade suggested that the invasions led to learning and benefit, a fusion of thoughts, practices and ideas, the demise of the Mughals and the rise of the Marathas and Sikhs. During the Lahore speech, he noted: “If the Indian races had not benefitted by the contact and examples of men with stronger muscles and greater powers, they would never have been able to reassert themselves in the way in which history bears testimony they did.”
Ranade’s assessment of India at the end of the 19th century is startlingly similar to the reality of the early 21st. Both Hindus and Muslims, he warned, “are wanting (sic) in the exercise of virtues necessary for civic life… in the love of science and research, in the love and daring of adventurous discovery, the resolution to master difficulties, and in chivalrous respect for womankind”.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal